“Stripped Bare: The Art of Animal Anatomy.”

You have to see this book. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. 

 

Author David Bainbridge has collected hundreds of images, ancient and new, showing animals without feathers, fur, or flesh. What you see are skeletons and organs in detail simply incredible.

 

There are horses, chickens, flamingos, sharks, whales, frogs — anything and everything about which someone, today or hundreds of year ago, had curiosity.

 

Horses get particular attention. There is a 1599 drawing of a horse skeleton, the leg joints — hip, knee, ankle — giving the impression of mechanical construction. Then there is Leonardo da Vinci’s study for a mechanical wing, a bone and what looks like a hinge. It’s easy to see how reality feeds imagination.

 

There is the well-known set of photos by Edward Muybridge, taken in 1887, that settled once and for all this much debated question: when a horse gallops in there any point at which all four feet are off the ground? Yes. See frames 2 and 3.

 

There are the photos of the Galapagos finches, similar but for shape of the beak, that helped Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution. There is a 1602 drawing of a rabbit with horns. Call it the first jackalope, that critter hanging on the wall in western bars. Many drawings show the result of the artist relying on second-hand information.

 

The anatomy of a snake is hard to imagine when you see the animal. It is no easier in the illustrations, all of those vitals strung end to end in such a narrow space. 

 

How were some of these drawings made given the wet and unwieldy condition of the guts of the animals, and the time of creation — the 16th through the 19th century? It had to be messy work. Yet, the detail is there. 

 

There are bird skeletons and drawings of an embryo’s ascending stages. With one exception, as the author says, one bird looks much like other birds. Except, I suggest, the flamingo, odd looking in life, positively strange when all you see are its assembled bones, its jointed neck longer than its skinny legs.  

 

In 1555, Pierre Belon drew comparisons of skeletons of man and bird. The similarity cannot be missed. Belon illustrates how much we share with beasts, says author Bainbridge. He calls this ”one of the most charming curios in all of anatomical art.” 

 

The lungs of a frog, drawn in 1661. A sheep’s brain from 1664. On and on, page after page, illuminations of life in extraordinary detail. 

 

Richard Owen in his book “On the Anatomy of Vertebrates” shows the bony structure of  a fish, a copy reproduced here. Baisnbridge comments on how animals gradually lost many of those bones on their way toward becoming mammals. It’s a lesson in evolution.

 

Recent advances in imagery — xrays, magnetic resonance images, scans, microscope photography, tractography — have provided new information, entirely new ways to see things. The artistic values seen in pre-modern work is missing, however. 

 

The author concludes with modern artistic use of bones — Georgia O’keeffe’s sun-dried cattle bones in her desert depictions. They're beautiful, but they don't match the pen-and-ink drawings of centuries past for beauty and impact.

 

Published in September by Princeton Presss, hardcover, 255 pages, index, 260 color images, $29.95.

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